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David Sims - TMCnet CRM Alert Columnist[May 19, 2005]

FCC Gives VoIP 120 Days for E911

By David Sims, TMCnet CRM Alert Columnist

As widely expected, the Federal Communications Commission issued a decision today that Voice-over Internet Providers must provide access to E911 service to their customers in 120 days. The decision surprised few observers.

According to Reuters, the FCC “unanimously voted to require carriers to provide emergency call centers the location and telephone number of callers who dial 911 from Internet phones and ensure that callers reach emergency dispatchers instead of nonemergency lines.”

In the months leading up to the decision there were lots of sharp words, apocalyptic predictions and political jockeying for position on the issue, as one might expect over the issue of access to the nation's nearly 6,200 "public safety answer points."

Some were sure the heavy hand of government would crush the innovative entrepreneurs who created the VoIP industry in the first place, in favor of the fat cats, the lumbering, established telcos who would come in and simply sweep up all the profits made possible by others:

"They (indie VoIP providers) were in the market space first, they have far better offerings, and much better pricing as well,” wrote TechKnow Times. “So how to kill them? Simple. Force them to have to buy a service where the traditional telephone companies can set the price. And what is one thing that the traditional phone companies still pretty much have a monopoly on? The provision of 911 service."

Others argued that 911 is simply something you don’t fool around with, no matter how many quick bucks irresponsible upstarts are making at the expense of public safety, what with not telling their customers their 911 calls get routed to administrative offices and don’t even work after hours:

"It's an aggressive time frame, but from a public policy standpoint it's understandable why the FCC is being aggressive," said Carol Mattey, a director in Deloitte & Touche LLP's regulatory practice who was deputy chief of the FCC's wireline competition bureau until January.

"The whole wireless 911 mandate just dragged out and dragged out, and policy makers may want to make sure it doesn't get dragged out like that for this new technology," Mattey told the Associated Press, noting that 911 became an issue after many cellular networks were built.

"In the wireless situation, you had a whole industry up and running and you had to retrofit systems to make it work. The VoIP industry is relatively in its infancy, so lets make it clear from the beginning that you need to provide 911 rather than going back and jury-rigging something."

Even the telcos are concerned about the time frame. “In its talks with the FCC, AT&T Corp. cautioned it may need to disconnect certain subscribers to its VoIP service, CallVantage, if the order doesn't allow enough time and flexibility to deploy enhanced 911 services,” the AP reports.

Internet phone carriers such as mainstream leader Vonage Holdings Corp. are, in fact, worried about the FCC order’s effects on their ability to compete on their major advantage – price.

Local phone companies say there’s no reason why VoIP providers can’t pay them to connect to the 911 system. VoIP providers say the resultant charges would be ruinously expensive, driving them out of business.

In fact the four Bells which run the nation’s 911 infrastructure have opened it to VoIP providers, but part of the problem is still that when a call is made from a VoIP phone, even if it reaches the appropriate 911 emergency dispatcher it doesn’t carry the address where emergency personnel need to go, as standard 911 calls do.

Farsighted VoIP providers are one jump ahead of the government. Vonage, the leading provider of broadband phone service, today announced they have agreed to purchase access to elements of the wireless and wireline Enhanced 9-1-1 network to offer customers E9-1-1 service from SBC and BellSouth.

As a result of successful negotiations, ongoing since April, Vonage will able to deliver both the caller's location and call back number to emergency services personnel for 9-1-1 calls placed throughout three of the four major RBOC territories before the end of the year.

Vienna, Virginia-based SunRocket has announced that it expects to meet ahead of time the new Federal Communications Commission requirements for E-911, which SunRocket expects will require that all VoIP providers implement Enhanced 911 capabilities within the next several months.

SunRocket is promising that customers in the company's service regions will be equipped with E-911 within 30 days.

E-911 technology allows emergency services to identify the physical location and call-back number of the caller. SunRocket automatically provisions E-911 for customers when they establish service, using wholesale network partners to access the traditional emergency 911 infrastructure.

Paul Erickson, chairman and co-founder of SunRocket said the company is “extending E-911 throughout our entire service footprint as fast as possible.”

The rising popularity of VoIP has highlighted concerns about access to emergency services. Unlike traditional telephone service, many VoIP providers do not route 911 calls to emergency call centers together with the location information and name of the caller.

By assigning phone numbers matched with the legacy service areas for those phone numbers, SunRocket can enable E-911 for customers without requiring expensive modifications. Currently, the traditional E-911 infrastructure cannot easily accommodate "out-of-region" phone numbers and "nomadic" scenarios, where consumers might transport their VoIP equipment between different locations.

Erickson said SunRocket will “no longer sell our service in areas where we cannot ensure access to E-911.”

David Sims is contributing editor and CRM Alert columnist for TMCnet.

To discover how contact centers can save money and increase productivity by making the switch to IP Telephony, be sure to attend TMC's IP Contact Center Summit May 24-26, 2005, in Dallas, Texas. IP Contact Center Summit is co-located with the Speech-World conference, where you can get expert guidance in the deployment of speech technologies to strengthen customer relationships.

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